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Eucharist for Non-Catholics

The Church recognizes that "in certain circumstances, by way of exception, and under certain conditions, access to these sacraments may be permitted, or even commended, for Christians of other Churches and ecclesial Communities."
by Father Edward McNamara | Source:

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: I have been a Eucharistic minister to the sick for the past 10 years. I have done this in four different dioceses. I have permission from the local bishop to bring daily Communion to a gravely ill relative. This past Sunday, I met several Episcopalians and Lutherans who really wanted to participate in some type of a service too. My heart went out to them. In all our readings Jesus healed based on a person's faith, not their creed. I have not shared Communion, but my heart says this would be good for the faith of those who are suffering. May the Eucharist be shared among non-Catholic if there is faith in the Real Presence? Must I abide by Church law? – S.C., Little Rock, Arkansas

A: John Paul II has spoken on the relationship between the Eucharist and ecumenism in his encyclical "Ecclesia de Eucharistia":

"The gift of Christ and his Spirit which we receive in Eucharistic communion superabundantly fulfills the yearning for fraternal unity deeply rooted in the human heart; at the same time it elevates the experience of fraternity already present in our common sharing at the same Eucharistic table to a degree which far surpasses that of the simple human experience of sharing a meal. Through her communion with the body of Christ the Church comes to be ever more profoundly 'in Christ in the nature of a sacrament, that is, a sign and instrument of intimate unity with God and of the unity of the whole human race.'

"The seeds of disunity, which daily experience shows to be so deeply rooted in humanity as a result of sin, are countered by the unifying power of the body of Christ. The Eucharist, precisely by building up the Church, creates human community" (No. 24).

Later, in No. 46 of the encyclical, the Pope reminds us of those rare cases, and under what conditions, non-Catholic Christians may be admitted to the sacraments of the Eucharist, reconciliation and anointing of the sick.

This administration is limited to "Christians who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church but who greatly desire to receive these sacraments, freely request them and manifest the faith which the Catholic Church professes with regard to these sacraments. Conversely, in specific cases and in particular circumstances, Catholics too can request these same sacraments from ministers of Churches in which these sacraments are valid."

It adds: "These conditions, from which no dispensation can be given, must be carefully respected, even though they deal with specific individual cases. That is because the denial of one or more truths of the faith regarding these sacraments and, among these, the truth regarding the need of the ministerial priesthood for their validity, renders the person asking improperly disposed to legitimately receiving them. And the opposite is also true: Catholics may not receive 'communion' in those communities which lack a valid sacrament of orders."

The Holy Father refers to several numbers of the
Ecumenical Directory which specify these conditions in more detail, in its chapter on "Sharing Spiritual Activities and Resources."

The general principles involved in this sharing must reflect this double fact:

"1) The real communion in the life of the Spirit which already exists among Christians and is expressed in their prayer and liturgical worship;

"2) The incomplete character of this communion because of differences of faith and understanding which are incompatible with an unrestricted mutual sharing of spiritual endowments."

For these reasons the Church recognizes that "in certain circumstances, by way of exception, and under certain conditions, access to these sacraments may be permitted, or even commended, for Christians of other Churches and ecclesial Communities" (No. 130).

Apart from the case of danger of death, the episcopal conference and the local bishop may specify other grave circumstances in which a Protestant may receive these sacraments although always respecting the conditions outlined above in the Holy Father's encyclical: "that the person be unable to have recourse for the sacrament desired to a minister of his or her own Church or ecclesial Community, ask for the sacrament of his or her own initiative, [and] manifest Catholic faith in this sacrament and be properly disposed" (No. 131).

Therefore in general it is not possible for you to give Communion to Protestants. But if you find one who fulfills the above conditions, you should advise the local pastor so that the person may receive reconciliation and anointing of the sick.

This does not mean that you are completely despoiled of all possibilities of giving spiritual comfort while exercising one of the corporal works of mercy.

Apart from words of encouragement and consolation you could also use some of the spiritual treasury of readings, prayers and intercessions found in the ritual for the care of the sick. Thus you could pray for, and with, these souls in a time of need.

* * *

Follow-up: Ad-libbing the Prayers of the Faithful

Several correspondents noted that I forgot to mention in the July 20 column that the proper place for reading the general intercessions, or prayers of the faithful, is the ambo.

This fact was included in the document I quoted. But it serves as a reminder that the ambo is reserved for the proclamation of God's word, preaching and the general intercessions. Commentators, choir directors and others who intervene in the celebration should preferably not use the ambo.

A reader from Spain asks if it is proper to recite the Hail Mary to conclude the general intercessions.

This custom, fairly widespread in some countries, is usually introduced by a phrase asking for Mary's intercession with respect to the other intentions. Since, as we mentioned in our previous note, the intercessions are above all intentions, and not prayers or petitions directed toward God, then there is no reason why we cannot invoke Mary's intercession in presenting our intentions to God.

However the Hail Mary should not substitute the priest's closing prayer.

A correspondent from Ontario in Canada asks if there is any particular format for writing the intentions of the general intercessions.

The official documents limit themselves to asking that the "intentions announced should be sober, be composed freely but prudently, and be succinct, and they should express the prayer of the entire community" (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 71).

The documents also state that the intentions more or less should follow the suggested order: universal and local Church (Pope, bishop, etc.); for the salvation of the world (for those responsible for civil government) and those oppressed by any burden (those who suffer, the sick); and for special categories of people (those who prepare for baptism, for those dedicated to some special mission, etc.).

Being brief and to the point prevents the intentions from mutating into long prayers or verbose pious exhortations.

Expressing the prayer of the entire community means that they should not be too personalized either by reflecting too closely the spiritual interests of an individual or group within the community or my mentioning very particular individual needs.

This would not exclude particular mentions on special occasions such as funerals and confirmations nor the custom of some parishes of asking the parish community to pray for those members who are gravely ill or recently deceased.

There are many worthy editions of books with formulas for the general intercessions, even some covering every day of the year.

These books may be used for the general intercessions themselves or as resources in preparing intercessions tailored to the needs of a particular community.


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